In the long history of Hollywood heartbreaks, the story of Veronica Lake is still the most tragic. This screen siren became iconic for her icy blonde hair draped mysteriously over one eye, as well as for her frigid femme fatales. But inside, the placid-looking Lake was a flame burning far too bright, and when her end came, it was quick and brutal.
Like so many Hollywood starlets, Veronica Lake had to invent herself from the ground up. Born Constance Frances Marie Ockelman in 1922 in Brooklyn, New York, her early life was about as far away from the silver screen as you can get. After all, her father Harry, who worked for an oil company, and her mother Connie were strictly working middle class. But then, the girl’s ho-hum life took a devastating turn.
When Lake was just 10 years old, her father perished in a horrific Philadelphia industrial explosion. Although her mother remarried, moved Lake around from school to school, and tried to proceed like things were normal, nothing was really ever the same again. Perhaps this is why the matriarch began trying to live vicariously through her daughter, and doing it in an incredibly alarming way…
Although Lake had an itinerant and alienating childhood, one thing was certain: She was gorgeous. Indeed, by the time Lake attended Miami High School in Florida, she was literally famous around the grounds for her looks. And while Lake wasn’t sure if she wanted to capitalize on her stunning face, her ambitious mother certainly was.
The overbearing Connie pushed Veronica into acting despite the girl's protestations and the immense strain it put on their relationship. Unwilling to take no for an answer, Connie even moved the whole family down to Beverly Hills when Lake was still just 16, all in the hopes she was a star in the making. The women were in for a rude awakening.
After years with no lasting relationships, Lake had trouble connecting with other people or even herself. So, surprise! The rigors of making it in Hollywood only further smashed her self-confidence to smithereens. Lake’s first film role, under the name "Constance Keane," was a measly part as an extra…which the director eventually chopped entirely from the film.
Embarrassed and discouraged, Lake nearly crumbled under the pressure. Still her mother pushed her on, sure she could dazzle audiences. Unfortunately for Lake, her mother was right.
In 1940, Lake got the break of her life. That year, producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. was on the hunt for a nightclub singer role for his upcoming flick I Wanted Wings, starring William Holden. The moment Hornblow watched Lake's test scene, he knew she was his girl and hired her for the lead female part. This was going to be "it" for Veronica at last—but first, Hornblow made one crucial request.
Like so many impresarios before him, Hornblow knew that his new find was never going to make it as "Constance Keane". Accordingly, he suggested she use the name "Veronica Lake". Besides, Hornblow explained, her eyes were also "calm and clear like a blue lake," so it fit perfectly. The words were flattering, but the burgeoning starlet’s response shocked the man.
Although Hornblow had come up with a star-making name, he was missing one excruciating detail. Lake herself hated it, and for a heartbreaking reason. As it happened, "Veronica" was her mother’s real name, and Lake wanted nothing more than to be free of her domineering parent. According to the star, when she heard that was her new stage name, "I just sat down and cried". But before she could speak up, it was way too late...
Lake was still a teenager when I Wanted Wings came out, but she turned into a full-blown star overnight. Although she had never grown much beyond five feet in height, audiences couldn’t help but notice her; as one review put it, she was "seductive, mischievous, with a delectable voice and mien". The hype was so big, people called her the "find of 1941" before the film even came out.
Even so, her burgeoning fans didn’t know the nightmare going on behind the scenes.
In a problem that would become increasingly pronounced, Lake wasn’t very reliable or likable on the set of I Wanted Wings. To be frank, the tiny teenager already had a big attitude. She missed her call times so frequently that director Mitchell Leisen ordered her to stay on set for the whole day so he'd always know where she was. But if Lake was already something of a diva, it wasn't going to get any better.
In I Wanted Wings, one scene turned Veronica Lake into a household name. During one day of the shoot, Lake’s hair kept accidentally falling into one of her eyes, creating a "peek-a-boo" draping effect. Although the self-conscious actress thought "I had ruined my chances for the role," her producer Arthur Hornblow, as always, understood the star-power in front of him, and encouraged her to keep doing it. What followed was a sensation.
Men couldn’t get enough of Veronica Lake, but women couldn’t get enough of her hairstyle. The I Wanted Wings peek-a-boo look quickly became all the rage among the stylish set, and continues to be synonymous with mysterious elegance today; just ask Jessica Rabbit, who sports Lake’s swoop, too. At long last, Lake was at the top of her game…but she was already getting dangerously distracted.
In 1940, the teenaged Lake met and fell in love with the art director John S. Detlie. Yet this was no fairy tale. Although Lake was something like 18 years old, Detlie was 14 years her senior and much more established in the Hollywood industry. Still, this didn’t stop Lake from jumping in with both feet and marrying him soon after meeting him. It all happened way too fast—and boy, did it catch up with her.
Following the success of I Wanted Wings, Lake’s studio plopped her into Sullivan’s Travels opposite actor Joel McCrea and under hot-ticket rom-com director Preston Sturges. The Veronica Lake was officially a star, so everyone expected the film was going to be a huge hit. But when Lake walked onto set the first day, her director nearly gasped out loud.
During all the pre-production for Sullivan’s Travels, Lake kept a huge secret from the cast. She was pregnant with Detlie's child. By the time filming started, she was six months along and it was super obvious to everyone, her director especially, what was going on. Maybe she'd done it out of fear of getting fired, but the horrific incident that transpired probably made Lake wish she had come clean.
As Preston Sturges stood looking at his lead starlet’s very pregnant body, his shock wore off quickly and transformed into intense fury. He was so angry at Lake, the rest of the crew had to physically hold him back from attacking the actress. In the end, Sturges was forced to cleverly hide Lake's condition with body doubles and costuming—but while he succeeded in pulling it off, Lake’s own behavior on set was nothing short of nightmarish.
Whether it was the pregnancy hormones, her deep insecurities, or something else entirely, Lake was uniformly rude to almost everyone in Sullivan's Travels, snapping at cast and crew alike and flying into tantrums at the drop of a hat. At the end of the shoot, her love interest in the film, Joel McCrea, vowed never to work with her again, saying, "Life's too short for two films with Veronica Lake". Ouch. Yet in reality, something much darker was going on.
Lake was a reluctant star, but she still drank deep from the cup of fame—both figuratively and literally. Around this time, Lake started drinking heavily, partially to cope with the pressures of Hollywood, and partially because she loved basking in the nightlife. Still, it didn't love her back, and she often showed up for early calls looking rough and thoroughly hungover. And drink wasn't her only vice...
Although Lake was in a serious marriage with children, she wasn’t spending all her time warming her husband’s bed and rocking the cradle. Instead, she took full advantage of her star status, carrying on a series of affairs with the likes of Howard Hughes, Aristotle Onassis, and Marlon Brando. Nonetheless, there was one man famous who fit her perfectly. He just wasn’t her lover.
Early in her career, Lake found herself acting with up-and-comer Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire. Miraclously (for Lake) they got along. Not only did their smooth, smoky chemistry waft off the screen, they also shared a very specific trait. At a modest 5 foot, 6 inches, Ladd was extremely insecure about his height and got angry if any of his co-stars—especially actresses—were taller than him.
Since Lake was barely five feet, she was one of the few starlets who could make him look tall, and they often worked togther afterward. Unfortunately, the good times on set didn’t keep rolling.
In 1942, Lake was on another promising film, this time the romantic comedy I Married a Witch. It was doomed from the start. For one, her Sullivan’s Travels co-star Joel McCrae had already backed out of the film thanks to his promise never to work with her again, and for another, she wasn’t getting along any better with her new co-lead, Fredric March. In fact, things got downright spicy on set.
Sparks flew between Lake and March immediately—and not in the good way. Besides having a bad temper, Lake’s insecurities often made her come across as bland, quiet, and air-headed...or so Fredric March thought. During pre-production, he sniped—to her face (!)—that she was a "brainless little blonde sexpot, void of any acting ability". You can bet Lake got him back, though.
After listening to March berate her, Lake gave as good as she got. Without stopping to think, she lashed out and called March a "pompous poseur," among other insults. Again: this was all before a single scene started filming. And as they did gear up to shoot, Lake’s temper didn’t cool off at all. Instead, she came up with an ingenious plan to torment March even more.
Throughout her time on I Married a Witch, Lake played a series of "practical jokes"—if that’s what you want to call them—on March, and all of them made his working days a living nightmare. She would do everything from put a 40-pound weight into her dress for a scene where he had to carry her, to pushing her foot hard right into his groin if he was being shot from the waist up.
Though she was but small, Veronica Lake was mighty…and her bad reputation was about to blow up.
Hollywood isn’t kind to the sweetest starlets, and when word got around that Veronica Lake was as acid as they come, cast and crews began to turn on her wholesale. Eddie Bracken, who had barely worked alongside Lake in 1942’s ensemble flick Star Spangled Rhythm, didn’t let his scant experience with the star temper his scathing opinion. "She was known as ‘The [Witch],’" he once said, "and she deserved the title".
Tragically, though, the next dreadful months of Lake’s life would make even her most bitter enemies shut their mouths.
In July 1943, after having a daughter named Elaine, Lake was pregnant with her second child with husband John Detlie. Then out of nowhere, a cruel twist of fate derailed everything. While working on a set, Lake tripped over a wire and went into labor early, giving birth to a frail baby boy she named Anthony. Too vulnerable to survive, Anthony only lived about a week before passing. The consequences were devastating.
Both Lake and Detlie were heartbroken over the accident, and their marriage simply couldn’t survive it. The pair separated the same summer that baby Anthony passed and made the divorce official before the year was up. Reeling from her loss and without many coping mechanisms to speak of, it didn’t take long for Lake to start making some very bad decisions.
Just months after she lost her child and her marriage imploded, Lake married again, this time to film director Andre DeToth. She would go on to have two children with DeToth, a boy named Michael and a girl named Diana. But if people thought that Lake was going to finally settle down into a semblance of happiness, they were very, very wrong. Instead, chaos came courting her.
While Lake’s personal life was in shambles, the world was also on fire. After all, 1944 wasn’t just the year Lake remarried. WWII was also in full swing—and Lake found herself in the center of a controversy. As it turned out, her flowing "peek-a-boo" hairstyle was so popular among women, young workers in ammo factories were getting their loose hair dangerously caught in machinery.
The government begged Lake to publicly change her hairstyle and advocate for women to adopt more machine-friendly styles. She complied, even making advertisements for the effort. It was certainly well-meaning…but it was also the beginning of Lake's downfall.
Like Samson in the Bible, Lake’s hair change somehow drained her of all her star power, and starting in 1944, she made a series of flops. Most infamously, her turn as the unsympathetic Dora Bruckman in The Hour Before Dawn caused audiences to laugh outright at her horrible German accent. Not only that, her appearance in Boston that year for a war bonds event also left people cold, with one reviewer saying her "talk was on the grim side".
After a long slide down, Veronica Lake was finally flat on her back. And when her salvation came, it was a double-edged sword.
In 1946, Lake got to try her hand at a comeback in the form of the classic film noir The Blue Dahlia. In the beginning, it looked like the film had everything going for it: Not only was it going to be famous mystery writer Raymond Chandler’s first original screenplay, but Lake was also acting opposite Alan Ladd again, AKA one of the few people she actually got along with. Too bad the rest of the production was hellishly uncomfortable.
Almost as soon as she arrived on set, Lake made an extremely powerful enemy. Although Raymond Chandler was a frightfully heavy drinker and hadn’t even finished the script for The Blue Dahlia when the filming began, many people in Hollywood still deeply respected him. Only...Veronica Lake wasn't one of them. In fact, she didn’t know Chandler at all. And one day, she put her foot right in it.
Once Lake clocked the fact that Chandler was "the greatest mystery writer around," she decided she needed to do a little research. Did that research consist of reading his many novels? Uh, no. Instead, she listened intently to the film’s publicity director so she could comment on Chandler to the press with as little effort put in as possible. This did not impress the volatile Chandler—but their feud was just getting started.
If Chandler had liked Lake’s acting, maybe his pre-production quibbles would have dissolved. Well, the opposite happened: Like some of Lake’s colleagues before him, Chandler thought Lake’s acting style was vapid. Um, actually, scratch that; Chandler thought everything about her was vapid…and he did not mince words when it came to taking her down a peg".
The only times she's good is when she keeps her mouth shut and looks mysterious," Chandler once sniped to a friend while filming, adding that "There are three godawful close shots of her looking perturbed that make me want to throw my lunch over the fence". C’mon Raymond, tell us how you really feel. But then again, Chandler saved the worst for last.
Although The Blue Dahlia was a box office hit, the toils of its production and Lake’s animosity with Chandler overshadow her career to this day. It even produced the cruelest insult ever given to Veronica Lake. In the aftermath of the film, Chandler sanctimoniously and infamously dubbed her "Moronica Lake". Yet sooner rather than later, Lake had to deal with much worse troubles than name-calling.
As the goodwill of The Blue Dahlia wore off, Lake's personal and professional life suffered once more. She and DeToth had been strong for a bit, going so far as to buy a plane—with Lake even earning her pilot's license—and working together on several films. But nothing in Lake's life was built to last: These films got increasingly worse and Paramount dumped Lake from their roster in 1948, throwing her marriage into its own tailspin.
The next years were increasingly difficult for Lake, but she did her best. Little did she know, it wasn’t enough.
In 1952, Lake’s whole life went down in a blaze of infamy. After all her flops, money was tight and the IRS seized her family home for unpaid taxes. This would be upsetting for many, but it pushed Lake right off the deep end. She had such an intense nervous breakdown that she completely abandoned her marriage—and boy, do I mean abandoned.
Using her pilot’s license, Lake took the family plane, chucked her husband and kids, and flew solo from Los Angeles to New York. She was, by her own admission, completely done with Hollywood, and was willing to do literally anything to get away from its judgmental clutches. As it happens, though, that was just the first step in a series of increasingly bizarre behaviors.
The next years of Lake’s life are something of a mystery. Although we know she tried to make a comeback in the theater world, she spent most of her time in New York hazily drifting between hotels and increasing her drinking at a rapid pace. She did marry the songwriter Joseph Allan McCarthy in 1955, but they divorced four years later, and above all else, Lake focused on staying completely out of Hollywood’s reach.
Eventually, she fell into obscurity—until, that is, a New York Post journalist tracked her down in 1962. What they found shocked them to the core.
Although the reporter was surely aware that Lake wanted nothing to do with the glitz and glam of Hollywood anymore, likely nothing could have prepared them for the truth. The journalist found the great Veronica Lake working as a cocktail waitress at Martha Washington Hotel in Manhattan, where she was also living under the name "Connie de Toth".
The discovery awakened new interest in the long-lost Lake, with fans even sending her scads of money. Yet once more, Lake was full of sharp surprises.
When Lake found out that fans thought she was a charity case, her old temper flared. Recalling this time in her life, she snapped, "It's as though people were making me out to be down-and-out. I wasn't". Besides, she said, she took a job as a waitress because "I like people. I like to talk to them," not because she had nowhere else to turn.
Accordingly, Lake sent back everything well-wishers ever sent her as a "matter of pride". Everything, that is, except one package.
One of the people who got wind of Lake’s situation was none other than her old, fiery lover Marlon Brando. The minute he heard, he got someone to send her a check for one thousand dollars. This time, Lake’s reaction was much different. Although she likewise didn’t cash it, she did save the check as a memento from her glory days, even framing it in her home so she could show friends.
The whole situation was wonderfully heartwarming and wholesome for her fans. Nonetheless, it still ruined her life.
After Lake’s re-discovery in the cocktail bar, something shifted in the former star. Once again, she began to feel Hollywood’s inexorable pull, even after so narrowly escaping it. Within months, she gave in, and in the next few years, she jumped back into entertainment, taking on television and film roles and putting out an autobiography, The Autobiography of Veronica Lake. It's just there was one thing missing.
Beauty is religion in the image conscious-world of Hollywood, and Veronica Lake was no longer beautiful. Years of alcoholism left her haggard and looking much older than her mid-40s age; as one reporter who met her at the time harshly put it, she "looked like a cleaning lady". Perhaps, though, Lake might have made inroads anyway—instead, one of the most humiliating moments of her life happened.
In 1969, when she was 47 years old, Hollywood "honored" Veronica Lake with a star on the Walk of Fame. Excited, Lake strutted up to the induction ceremony…only to face a mortifying sight. Save just three people, no one had even bothered to show up. It was a brutal shock, and Lake would never recover. Then again, she wouldn’t have time to.
Bitterness and cynicism shot through the brief years that Lake had left. As her life hurtled toward its tragic end, Lake realized just how few people she could rely on. Certainly not her mother, who had even sued her for financial support in 1948 while Lake was heavily pregnant with her daughter Diana. Neither could Lake depend on her children—but that was nightmare of her own making.
Although Lake's autobiography laments not spending enough time with her children, her in-person comments reveal a dark truth. By the end of her life, Lake seemingly couldn’t trust anyone, not even her own flesh. As she put it in a late interview, "I am not going to hang on to my blood, nor am I going to allow them to hang on to me. I know what was done to me by my mother, and I’m not going to do that".
Poor Lake was irrevocably twisted and damaged. And sadly, she didn’t even get a break in death.
Lake did have a certain amount of humor about the bleak streak that had dominated her life. She once quipped, "I will have one of the cleanest obits of any actress. I never did cheesecake like Ann Sheridan or Betty Grable. I just used my hair". She also confessed that she cheekily identified with the moniker one review had given her: "[bedroom] zombie".
In June 1973, Lake was still touring for the promotion of her autobiography through the United States. While passing through Vermont, she began to experience violent, debilitating stomach pains and had to put the tour on pause to go see a local doctor immediately. When they looked her over, they only had stomach-dropping news to give.
After years of drinking like Humphrey Bogart playing the male lead in a film noir, Veronica Lake had advanced cirrhosis of the liver and the medics only gave her a few weeks to live. As with so much else in her life, Lake got nothing better than the bare minimum: In early July 1953, just as the doctors predicted, Lake passed of acute hepatitis and kidney failure.
Although Lake suffered continually from the idea that she had no talent—she once said "You could put all the talent I had into your left eye and still not suffer from impaired vision"—and people like Raymond Chandler backed up her insecurities, other people in Hollywood often praised her skills and allure. The problem, her I Married a Witch director Rene Clair said, was that "She was a very gifted girl, but she didn't believe she was gifted".
Veronica Lake had always been one of the most tormented stars in Hollywood, and her mother eventually revealed the devastating reason why. According to the matriarch, doctors diagnosed Lake with schizophrenia from a young age. According to her, this accounted for Lake’s irritability, mood swings, and sometimes irrational decision-making. And that's not all.
Today, one common interpretation for Lake’s ruinous drinking habit is that it was a coping mechanism and self-medication for her condition, helping her to run away not just from Hollywood and her crippling insecurities, but from the horrors of her mind as well.
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